A Distant Field: American's Great War Highlanders
By RJ MacDonald
RJ MacDonald’s WWI historical novel, A Distant Field, will be released on November 11th, 2018. The first in a series, it follows Stuart and Ross McReynolds, Scots-Americans who survive the sinking of the Lusitania. Together with four Irishmen, a Canadian, and a young English officer, they join Scotland’s Seaforth Highlanders and head towards the bloody battlefields of WWI. This week, RJ MacDonald gives WWrite both a preview and behind-the-scenes look at this unprecedented literary perspective of the Great War:
America’s Great War Highlanders
The mornings were cold in November 1917, so it’s easy to imagine the scene- Her Majesty’s Troopship Canada arrives at Liverpool docks, England. Soon lines of soldiers, burdened down with kit and rifles, are disembarking down the gangplanks. They form up into ranks, glad to be on dry land again, and with a nod from their commanding officer to the pipe major, the drone of bagpipes tuning up carries through the still air. Then, to the command of, “By the right, Quick March!” the men of the 236th MacLean Kilties of America march smartly away from the docks to the sound of their own pipes and drums. America’s Great War Highlanders had arrived.
Americans serving in the Canadian Forces were commonplace during WWI. Three battalions, the 97th, 211th and 213th, all designated ‘American Legion’, had been raised and deployed to France. But the 236th Battalion was special- it wore kilts. It was the brainchild of a Canadian- Lieutenant Colonel Percy Guthrie. While lying wounded in France, he heard a Scottish battalion passing by, pipes and drums leading the way. At that moment he resolved to raise a battalion of Highlanders. On return home to Canada, he gained official support and in May 1916, the 236th New Brunswick Kilties (MacLean Highlanders) were raised. Needing men to fill its ranks, Guthrie’s gaze quickly turned to New England following America’s entry into the war. With a quick change of name and cap badges, the 236th Maclean Kilties of America appealed to Scots-Americans from Maine to Boston for recruits and within eleven days the Highland battalion had over-filled its ranks (The MacLean Kilties by Ian MacLean).
Having arrived in Great Britain, the battalion trained hard, under the expert eyes of its officers and non-commissioned officers- all veterans of the Western Front. In March 1918, they deployed to France. A cruel blow awaited them. Despite vehement protests, the battalion was effectively split into three to feed the constant need for re-enforcements. The Canadians from New Brunswick were allowed to join the New Brunswick Regiment. The rest, including the Scots-Americans, were divided between the Royal Highlanders of Canada and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, in which they would go on to fight in every major battle for the remainder of the war, suffering 553 casualties, (Percy Guthrie and the MacLean Kilties by Paul Belliveau).
I came across the Maclean Highlanders while doing research for my WWI historical novel, A Distant Field. I was looking at Canadian Scottish regiments and stumbled upon a reference to the 236th MacLean Highlanders not only recruiting in New England but even changing their name and badges to the 236th MacLean Kilties of America. As my novel centred on Scots-Americans fighting with Scotland’s Seaforth Highlanders (in which my great-grandfather served), I was immediately interested. I wanted to know more about them and where they served, with the possibility of having them pop up in future novels (they will!).In 2006 a memorial plaque to the 236th Maclean Kilties of America was unveiled at their old headquarters building in Fredericton, New Brunswick. A memorial to all Americans who fought in the Canadian Forces during WWI was dedicated in 1927 at Arlington National Cemetery; the pipes and drums of the 48th Highlanders of Canada played at the ceremony.
It demonstrates one of the huge advantages of historical fiction- you get to cherry-pick history. Instead of writing a comprehensive historical reference book covering a topic or period of time, you get to choose a few aspects and run with them. For me that became the American involvement in WWI prior to its declaration of war. Another great advantage is the characters. They can reveal history through their persona- Americans volunteering or Irishman signing up in the British Army by their thousands. One of my characters is a black Canadian, who only came about when I stumbled across a unit of Revolutionary War Black Loyalists re-settled in Nova Scotia in 1783, which led me on to research black Canadian involvement in WWI. And then you get to mix your characters with historical events. That meant beginning with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a pivotal event not only in swaying American opinion behind the allies, but also a huge catalyst for American WWI volunteerism.
I also wanted to appeal to a wide audience, and historical fiction can do this if properly pitched. And there lies the challenge- finding the right balance. Too many facts and the novel becomes a textbook, too few, and it becomes fiction. I tried to find the middle ground- entertain with a good read, but at the same time leaving the reader with snippets of history along the way, while staying true to the military history of the time. I think of it as 'teaching by stealth'.
The other challenge is what to leave out. There is so much to cover when you’re looking at a topic like WWI, but will it fit the story-line? Another danger is telling everyone what you know, or what you’ve learned. More than once I’ve had to remind myself, it’s not a history book, it’s a novel. The rewards for me comes when I discover an aspect like the MacLean Kilties, little histories that have become lost, but are waiting to be found again, like the Zion Mule Corps; the Royal Navy Trawler Service (in which another great-grandfather served); US Calvary on the Western Front; or the Maori Native Contingent- fearsome warrior soldiers from New Zealand who yelled their ‘haka’ war-cry as they attacked the Turkish positions, to name a few.
Sometimes history and fiction co-operate. I was writing about four young Irishmen fishing in a rowing boat the day the Lusitania was torpedoed. I wanted them to be fishing for a reason, to sell their catch, so I checked what day the Lusitania was sunk- Friday. There’s always demand for fish on a Friday in Catholic Ireland. A big smile. Looking ahead at novels down the line in the series, I needed the Seaforth Highlanders to serve alongside the American Expeditionary Force. In the Battle of Amiens, the British sent one crack infantry battalion to the American sector- Scotland’s Highland Division. Another big smile. When events like that come together, it makes historical fiction so much easier for the author. You know the main events ahead of time- they’re written in the history books, your job is to pick the ones you want and then to weave a story around those events, to bring history to life, to make it real again. Sometimes history and fiction don’t cooperate. I desperately wanted my characters to visit the largely forgotten or unknown Salonika Front, but the dates and geography won’t cooperate, so they’re off to Iraq instead, to fight in WWI’s desert campaign before inevitably heading to France.
In 2006 a memorial plaque to the 236th Maclean Kilties of America was unveiled at their old headquarters building in Fredericton, New Brunswick. A memorial to all Americans who fought in the Canadian Forces during WWI was dedicated in 1927 at Arlington National Cemetery; the pipes and drums of the 48th Highlanders of Canada played at the ceremony.
RJ MacDonald grew up in a small coastal fishing village in Scotland. He crossed the Atlantic and attended Cate School before studying both military history and social science at the University of California at Berkeley, where his dissertation professor was Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers). After graduating with two BAs, he enlisted in the US Marines as a reservist. Boot camp in San Diego went well for five days until the drill instructors read his personnel file and discovered not only a ‘Berkeley hippy freak infiltrating their Marine Corps’, but also one with an accent, ‘You speak funny private, are you Russian?’ Meritoriously promoted to sergeant, he served in a helicopter support squadron at NAS Miramar and as an expert marksman and marksmanship instructor, before returning to Scotland to complete two masters degrees and joining the Royal Air Force Reserves- ‘You speak funny sir, are you Canadian?’ Parachute qualified with jump-wings from Holland, the Czech Republic and US Special Operations Command Europe, he deployed as an intelligence officer with a Puma helicopter detachment during the war in Iraq, and then again to Cyprus during the conflict in Libya.
Now a director within a small research company, he also serves on a Royal National Lifeboat Institute volunteer lifeboat crew tasked with a 24/7 all-weather search and rescue role in some of the roughest seas in the world. He lives with his wife, three children, and a very cute but equally stupid cocker spaniel, in the East Neuk of Fife, where he grew up. He can often be found tapping away on his laptop while waiting for various after-school clubs to finish. A Distant Field is his debut novel and the first in The Seaforths series. His second novel, The Chosen Heroes, is underway.
For more details please visit www.rjmacdonald.scot or www.facebook.com/rjmacdonald.scot..